We’re living in a post-text world, where pictures — emojis, GIFs, Instagram feeds, etc. — are taking the place of words. We’re also inching toward a post-human scenario, where artificial intelligence supplants what happens between two ears. In restaurants, touch screens have already replaced servers, conveyor belts are sidelining runners, and service is lost in the name of expediency. But just when it seems like new ways have scuttled the old, in walks Jimmy Bharmal, a vision of what restaurants used to be, and a reminder of what we’ve nearly lost.
Debonair in sport coat with handkerchief tucked in his pocket, this gray-haired gentleman with an easy smile walks over to my table at Ambli, which opened four years ago in a backwater strip mall off Leetsdale Drive and South Holly Street, halfway between a McDonald’s and a Tuesday Morning. Although a second Ambli opened near the Denver Tech Center last fall, I’m curious how the original is holding up, in this unlikely location without the glitter of a new build. Initially launched as a grab-and-go, Ambli changed course just a few months later, keeping an international lineup but adding an emphasis on service.
And what service it is. Resting his wrinkled hands on the back of a chair, Jimmy pauses to acknowledge each of us with a nod. “Welcome,” he says, drawing out the syllables with the weathered cadence of someone who’s lived long enough to reflect on what matters in life...and who’s come up with people as the answer. “Have you been to Ambli before?” After highlighting his favorites on the sweeping menu — the kuku paka chicken, the tikka masala — he bids us good evening. Later, as I make my way to the restroom, I pass him in the back, and his eyes light up. “Are you enjoying your meal?” he asks kindly. His is a deep form of hospitality, born not of gimmicky throwbacks like cart service or tableside Caesars, but of lifelong conviction. Jimmy is more than a reminder of the way things used to be; he is the embodiment of what has allowed Ambli to thrive against the odds.
So who is this Jimmy, as he’s endearingly called by the entire staff as well as regulars? He’s a retired restaurateur of Indian descent who was born in Tanzania, then found his way to Denver via London and Dallas. He’s also the father of co-owner Pariza Mehta, who grew up in her parents’ restaurants and learned early on that there’s more to a meal than food. “There’s an experience you want to give to your guests,” she says, “a romance behind dining.”
Experience, romance, theatricality: These Ambli has in spades.
And hospitality, which doesn’t start and end with Jimmy. Another night, not one, but two servers peek through the flowing curtains at the host stand while the host prepares our table, making sure we’ve been helped. A runner swoops out of nowhere, taking plates from a server with the supportive words of a teammate: “I got you.”
From top to bottom, Ambli’s staff is abundantly welcoming, casting a positive glow over the environs — which is good, because seen from a less sunny mindset, the room might come off like a high school stage set. Until a few weeks ago, white icicle lights hung from the ceiling, like something adapted from last season’s play. Black and white accent walls, dark tables and a black ceiling create pockets of light and shadow. The open kitchen is brightly lit but largely overlooked because of the table placement.
Fortunately, Ambli also has a menu with the same enviable qualities as Jimmy: It’s well-traveled, friendly, eager to please. Tapas and entrees hop from country to country, continent to continent, a tour that could go wrong — à la TGI Fridays — but largely succeeds in the steady hands of longtime executive chef Ricardo Morffin. Plates are easy to share, with something for everyone, from flatbreads to vegetarian platters to paella, and while certain sharp-edged flavors may have been rounded off (penang beef curry lacks the pungency of fish sauce), they’re still respectful. As a result, Ambli is a good-natured crowd-pleaser, the restaurant to choose when you want Indian and your friend wants fish and chips.
Lobster shooters are a popular starter, with a pitcher of Thai red-curry sauce poured into sake cups pre-set with fried lobster dumplings. I was skeptical; the name sounds like something off a shiny, laminated menu at a national chain, but the sweetness of the lobster proved a nice contrast to the curry’s zing. Also fusiony, naan tostadas turn the Indian bread into pizza, each warm, slightly crisped wedge laden with sliced tenderloin, goat cheese and an irresistible sauce of fig-jalapeño jam, caramelized onions and tamarind, the sweet-tart fruit that both tempers the sweetness and gives the restaurant its name. (Ambli is the word for “tamarind” in Gujarati, one of the languages of India.) Cilantro chutney zigzags over chicken saag flatbread, with housemade dough that’s thin on the bottom and puffy and charred at the edges like Neapolitan pizza. This saag is simply wilted spinach, though, not creamy saag paneer, which would give the dish more pop. A better option is the steak flatbread with marinated beef and parsley-bright chimichurri that lends it an Argentinian flair. Deep-fried Brussels sprouts, overlooked by Jimmy in his genial highlights reel, are the sleeper hit; tossed with dates, almonds, parmesan and slivered green apple, they’re a nod to the sun-drenched climes of the Mediterranean. This dish is one of the few renditions of the once-trendy vegetable that I can still get excited about.
Tempting as it is to make a meal of tapas, there are a few entrees that shouldn’t be ignored. The vegetarian Indian sampler, with a trio of curries, naan and basmati rice, is one. These are family recipes, passed down to Mehta by her great-great-grandparents, who immigrated to Tanzania from India. Pale, rich coconut curry is studded with traditional red chori beans. In a second curry, fall-apart slices of potatoes soak up tomato-ginger sauce fragrant with the warm spices of garam masala. Chana dhal is also highly spiced — and comforting, with yellow lentils and split chickpeas cooked until they nearly disintegrate. The Mediterranean platter is another good option, with marinated steak kebabs, mixed olives, naan, roasted red-pepper hummus and feta-quinoa salad.
But there’s a reason Jimmy mentions the kuku paka first. A traditional East African dish, it was among the first recipes that Mehta learned to make as a young bride. Reminiscent of an Indian curry and served in a stainless-steel, two-handled bowl associated with Indian restaurants, the ochre-colored gravy starts with a nuanced base of long-simmered tomatoes, ginger, chiles, cumin and coriander. Coconut milk adds a creaminess that softens and harmonizes the spices so that the marinated, grilled chicken is bathed in a sauce both silky and delicate.
To match the recent decor changes — no more icicle lights, a coat of fresh paint — Ambli’s menu is being refashioned along the lines of a conversation. Soups and salads will fall under “Light & Easy Chit-Chat,” flatbreads under “Getting to Know Each Other,” etc. Most dishes will make the transition; some, like an overly creamy cauliflower soup, will come off. Fingers crossed that the desserts will come off, too, replaced by sweets that taste like more than sugar.
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Mehta says the goal is to “change it up where it tells a better story of who we are.” But however the menu is formatted, Ambli already tells a good story, one begun by her hospitable father decades ago.
600 South Holly Street
Hours: 4:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Select menu items at
Brussels sprouts $11
Lobster shooters $13
Naan tostadas $13
Kuku paka $16
Vegetarian Indian sampler $15
Steak flatbread $12
Mediterranean platter $20